Legal system gets workout on road to ballot

By Jeff Karoub
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — The November ballot in Michigan will be peppered with measures that endured legal tussles just to make it there, and some political observers say they can’t remember an election where courts played such a major role.

Several high-stakes ballot proposals were challenged all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. The justice system also had a role in a west Michigan state lawmaker’s party switch and a longtime congressman’s decision not to run again after staffers were accused of falsifying petition signatures.

Some argue there’s nothing improper about people turning to the court system to fight for what they believe are their rights, but others contend the electorate can become polarized when litigation merges with policymaking.

“It really points to the divisiveness and severe partisanship we see in Lansing, Washington, D.C., and generally divides the politics among us,” said Eric Lupher, director of local affairs for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan. “This year, I think we can probably argue that the planets are aligning ... (and) that draws attention to these things.”

At the front of the litigation line are the six ballot proposals spawning a raft of attacks and counterattacks in courtrooms as well as in the media. The state’s highest court last month approved three: whether to strengthen collective bargaining rights, allow construction of bridges and tunnels to Canada, and require a supermajority in the Legislature to raise taxes. Each would amend the Michigan Constitution — a concern for critics.

“Special interests have kind of hijacked, in my view, what was intended by the writers of the 1963 constitution. Most of them literally are going to require a whole bunch of new lawsuits to resolve if any of them pass,” said Bill Rustem, senior policy adviser to Gov. Rick Snyder. “Everybody who’s got a special interest has discovered the way to get your idea done. ... If you can’t deal with representative democracy, you just hire people to gather signatures for you.”

Still, not everyone sees rampant polarization or problems with the system, even as they acknowledge the high number of litigation-fueled ballot issues.
“Our constitution provides for referenda and initiatives, which I think is good,” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said. “This is people speaking their minds in many cases. Is it perfect? No, but it’s the best system going.”
Signature-gathering is at the heart of another legal battle brewing in the run-up to the election. Four ex-campaign staffers of former Michigan U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter were charged in August with forging or falsifying signatures on nominating petitions a month after his resignation. He wasn’t charged, but Schuette said McCotter was “asleep at the switch.”
McCotter’s failure to submit the needed signatures paved the way for tea party-backed Kerry Bentivolio to win the GOP nomination in August primary. Bentivolio faces Democratic Dr. Syed Taj in the Nov. 6 election.
Barry Rabe, a professor and director of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at University of Michigan, said the McCotter episode comes coincidentally in the same election cycle as the contentious ballot proposals, yet it “sends a battle flag” nonetheless.
“I think it puts everyone on alert to raise questions about the veracity and integrity of the process,” Rabe said. “Do we begin to move more to a system in which every petition signature is challenged, or questions are raised? There’s expanded scrutiny of the whole ballot process.”
The divisiveness of the electorate is also on display with two other issues: the party switch of Grand Rapids state Rep. Roy Schmidt and a battle over Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s decision to include a citizenship check-off box on ballot applications in November, as she did in February and August.
A Detroit federal judge ordered Johnson to court for a hearing on Friday as critics try to stop the use of a citizen check-off box on the Nov. 6 ballot. A coalition of civil rights groups and labor unions seeks an injunction, while Johnson argues the citizenship question could prevent an unqualified person from voting and committing a crime.
Meanwhile, an Ingham County judge acting as a one-person grand jury is collecting evidence to decide whether to charge anyone with crimes in the May switch just before the deadline for the Aug. 7 primary election. Schmidt offered money to a 22-year-old political novice to run as a Democrat against him. Among the issues: whether Schmidt and Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger knew Matt Mojzak didn’t actually live in the district when he filed his candidacy.
One byproduct of all the ballot-related bickering could be a greater interest in election reform, including looking at the processes by which initiatives make it to the ballot and lawmakers change parties.
Rustem said the Snyder administration and others are talking about proposed fixes, including requiring paid ballot circulators to identify themselves as such so as not to mislead the public that they are volunteers. Lupher said he believes that despite the rancor this year, issues are for the most part apolitical and can be handled in a bipartisan way.
“I think people don’t want this to be sign of things to come,” Lupher said. “They want to change the system before it becomes a trend.”